From Street Food to Baja Mediterranean Cuisine: Exploring Tijuana’s Thriving Restaurant Scene
The “Baja Med” culinary scene has been on the radar for the past several years. Bourdain and Zimmern have reported on it, and LA food blogs have put the spotlight on Tijuana chefs who are driving the current tastes and trends. Miguel Angel Guerrero, Javier Plascencia, and others are blending fresh, locally-sourced ingredients in a manner that pays homage to the region’s rich culinary traditions and proximity to a plethora of fresh ingredients from the Pacific, the Sea of Cortez, and regional farms.
With the decline in tourism from north of the border in 2008, Tijuana has largely reinvented itself as a city for its residents, instead of a destination for the hoards of hard-partying, sybaritic Americans. The result has been a thoughtful movement that’s heralded the reinvention of local cuisine with a Mediterranean, Asian, and Mexican influence available both to the high-end diner, as well as the hombre (or mujer) on the street.
For our first foray into Tijuana’s new culinary landscape, Ursula and I contacted Club Tengo Hambre (Club I Am Hungry), a local “supper club” that caters to Southern Californians seeking passage to and navigation of Tijuana, Ensenada, and Valle de Guadalupe’s rich harvest of culinary, varietal, and hoppy delights. The club was founded by Bill Esparza, food blogger at LA Street Gourmet. We were greeted in San Ysidro by Kristin Diaz, a Club Tengo Hambre “Experience Specialist” and fellow blogger at lifeandfoodblog.com. We met her husband Antonio after a quick walk across the border and were on our way.
Stop 1: Mariscos Ruben
During our email exchanges, Club Tengo Hambre had emphasized the importance of the influence of Tijuana’s street food on the current incarnation of Baja Mediterranean cuisine. So it came as no surprise that our culinary tour started at Mariscos Ruben, a seafood truck where Ruben Rodriguez and his wife Mirta have been serving Tijuana’s large Sonoran population (as well as others who are into the freshest seafood available) on the corner of 8th St. and Quintana Roo for over 20 years.
When we arrived, the truck wasn’t crowded (two customers, a hungry cop and a guitarist singing “Under the Boardwalk” in Español), and there was no waiting. But Antonio let us know that on busy days, if there was another mariscos truck across the street, a line still forms for Mariscos Ruben even if no one is at the other truck. We were greeted by Mirta who took our orders and began working her magic with fresh seafood, a smile and a pinch of red dried chiles from a big plastic jar.
Ursula and I ordered the aguachile with jumbo shrimps, pulpo and HUGE callo de hacha scallops. The spiciness of the “chile water” and the freshness of the seafood was right on, and the rich taste of the chiles lingered pleasantly in a way that made me not want to take a drink of my styrofoam cup of Tecate for fear of cleansing the taste from my mouth.
Ruben got busy at the small mesquite grill with the rest of our order, preparing our rolled marlin taquito and Pismo clam, which had been diced, mixed in-shell with spices and queso, and wrapped in foil. Both were placed directly on the smoking mesquite wood, which gave the taquito an additional smokiness beyond the smoked marlin inside.
The Rodriguez’s also concoct about a dozen homemade salsas from fresh ingredients, all of which line the food truck counter. The sweet and spicy tamarinda and guava salsas were a standout for this Gringo. We encountered homemade salsas at every stop on our tour, with recipes that had been handed down through Baja Norte families for generations.
Stop 2: The Food Garden
Our next stop was The Food Garden, a unique take on the outdoor food court located on the edge of Tijuana’s Zona Gastronomica. The brainchild of TJ native Ricardo Nevárez, The Food Garden opened in March of this year and features five different culinary vendors who represent a selection of the best street and Baja Med-inspired cuisine in the city…at prices that just about everyone can afford (tacos and other items go for around $1.50 – $3 U.S.). For the full experience, try a sample from each vendor.
We ordered a couple of street tacos from Tacos Kokopelli, owned and operated by Pablo Campos and his two brothers, Chef Oso Campos and “Cricket”. Their specialty, “The Kraken” was amazing. Pulpo (octopus) is first marinated in Pesto Mexicano and then grilled to perfection and served with a variety of homemade salsas, including a pumpkin seed salsa and a habañero salsa. We were warned to use the habañero sparingly, and being no glutton for punishment, this is advice your Gringo always heralds! We also sampled their Pibil Taco, which was made with smoked marlin and a Yucateco sauce. Both were delicious!
Next, we met Chef Marcos Flores of La Taqueseria, known, we’re told, for their “fried cheese” tacos — essentially a piece of fried cheese (think a less greasy Greek Saganaki), stuffed with seafood, chicken, beef, fruit, or about a dozen other choices. We tried the Piña taco with strawberry cream sauce, topped with almonds. Chef Flores personally delivered another specialty, his smoked marlin tacos accompanied by two jumbo shrimp atop thinly sliced NY strip steak, topped with avocado, and drizzled with a smoky chipotle sauce.
All of this food was washed down with a cup of homemade watermelon and mint aguas frescas (Ursula had lemonade with jasmine), just what the doctor (or chef) ordered for a hot and humid August afternoon. Pacing ourselves, we didn’t sample wares from The Food Garden’s Los Chilaquiles, Creperie La Luna, or Los Pintxos, but will return soon to enjoy their respective specialties: chilaquiles, crepes, and Spanish tapas.
Stop 3: Erizo
One of the founding fathers of Baja Med cuisine, Chef Javier Plascencia has expanded his empire beyond his flagship eatery Mision 19 to serve a variety of foods in the group of Tijuana-based restaurants he owns and operates. Plascencia, a self-proclaimed “locavore”, believes in the use of the freshest ingredients grown, caught, or bred in Baja California. We stopped in at Erizo, his seafood restaurant, which exudes a casual elegance and laid-back atmosphere. We sat on their indoor/outdoor patio, completed two weeks prior to our visit.
Antonio highly recommended several items on the menu. First up was an uni shooter: A “tigers milk” style drink made with vodka, cucumber and other herbs, with a quail egg and side of Uni (sea urchin) that you plop into the shot yourself. Not usually a fan of sea urchin, this one was super fresh, tasting like it was just pulled from the ocean. Tackling my tiger’s milk in sips, the taste was akin to swimming through the Sea of Cortez with my mouth open. Briny yet refreshing, this is one of the best things your Gringo has ever put in his boca!
Next was a tripe and pulpo (octopus) taco, green shrimp ceviche and a fresh, diced Chocolate Clam served in its shell with onions, tomatoes, and light spices. Antonio ordered the soft shell crab taco, which admittedly brought on a bout of salivation and crustaceous envy. Everything was fresh, artistically plated, and had all the right tasting notes.
We paired our delicacies with bottles of craft brew from Insurgentes…a group of 20-somethings based in Tijuana who are creating amazingly tasty and celebrated brews. There is a craft beer revolution happening in Tijuana and Ensenada now, largely inspired by the growth of the industry and population of the beers just north of the border here in San Diego. My Insurgente Saison was fruity, cold, and refreshing. Salud!
Last Stop: El Taller
Before Plascencia, there was Chef Miguel Angel Guerrero, the founding father of Baja Med. Once a year, Guerrero and a group of like-minded chefs and friends take a hunting and fishing trip all the way down the peninsula from Tijuana to Los Cabos. Along the way, they eat what they catch and kill. For last year’s trip, they were sponsored by Nissan – who provided vans and other transport to the sporting party.
Our final stop was at El Taller, Guerrero’s casual bistro, just down the street from his other, more upscale restaurant, La Querencia. Built within a corrugated tin structure, the raw wood and other features and materials used for the space’s construction belies the restaurant’s selection of rustic wood-fired pizzas and other fare, such as a selection of beef tartars.
We ordered El Taller’s signature dish, the escargot pizza, along with roasted beets prepared with caramelized arugula, cooked and served in a cast iron skillet. Both were amazing. The escargots were plump and succulent, and the pizza was topped with greens straight from Guerrero’s garden (most of the produce used in his restaurants is grown by him, or otherwise locally harvested). The pizza was garlicy, herby, and delicious.
We also ordered a bottle of the house wine, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo grapes, so fresh, there is a thin layer of sediment floating on top of the vino. Kristin commented that local winemakers, extending south into the Valle de Guadalupe, enjoy experimenting with blends of local grapes.
We exited El Taller after an excellent experience and mariachi music (during “Sabor A Mi”, the bassist took a call for their next gig…much to our amusement). Driving back toward the border with our stomachs full and palates very much alive from all the evening’s tastes, we vowed to return again soon and often to try even more gustatory delights just south of the border in Tijuana…Mexico’s new culinary capital.
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